When Rahul Gandhi Takes on BJP-RSS, He Does So as a Principled Hindu

Hinduism's doctrine of universal acceptance has been increasingly called into question by the acolytes of Hindutva.

5 min read

The recent debate between Leader of the Opposition Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Modi in the Lok Sabha over Hinduism and Hindutva has focused attention again on the key differences between the latter, the BJP/RSS’ political doctrine, and the beliefs of most people of the Hindu faith.

Rahul Gandhi’s rejection of what some are doing to spread hatred and violence while claiming to be acting in the name of Hinduism aroused the strongest reaction from the votaries of Hindutva. Few things shocked many Hindus more than lynchings of Muslims in the name of cow protection, or some Muslims being beaten to death by mobs demanding they chant “Jai Shri Ram!” Such incidents have, at different times, led hundreds of thousands of Hindus across India to protest with placards declaring, ‘Not In My Name’. The Congress is proud to echo them.

As a Hindu, a liberal and a Congressman, I have always prided myself on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief, a religion that acknowledges all ways of worship as equally valid—indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion.

As I have often asked: How dare a bunch of thugs and fanatics shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics? Why should any Hindu allow them to diminish Hinduism to the raucous self-glorification of the football hooligan, to take a religion of awe-inspiring tolerance and reduce it to a chauvinist rampage?

Hinduism, with its openness, its respect for variety, its acceptance of all other faiths, is one religion which has always been able to assert itself without threatening others. But this is not the Hindutva that destroyed the Babri Masjid, nor that spewed in hate-filled diatribes by communal politicians.

It is, instead, the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda, whom I am fond of quoting at length. Among Swami Vivekananda’s most significant assertions -- which even Prime Minister Modi partly cited in the Lok Sabha debate while replying to Rahul Gandhi -- is that Hinduism stands for ‘both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.’

Vivekananda often recited a hymn, the Shiva Mahimna Stotram, to the effect that as different streams originating in different places all flow in different ways into the same sea, so do all paths lead to the same divinity. He repeatedly asserted the wisdom of the Advaita belief that Truth is One even if the sages call it by different names.

Vivekananda’s vision—summarised in the credo ‘sarva dharma sambhava’ [all religions are equal]—is, in fact, the kind of Hinduism practised by the vast majority of Hindus, whose instinctive acceptance of other faiths and forms of worship has long been the vital hallmark of our culture.

It is this doctrine of universal acceptance that has been increasingly called into question by the acolytes of Hindutva. Vivekananda had given his fellow Hindus a character certificate many of them no longer deserve. ‘The Hindus have their faults,’ Vivekananda added, but ‘…they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbours. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition.’

These words have a tragic echo 130 years later in an India in which Hindu fanaticism is rising, and adopting a form that Vivekananda would not have recognised as Hindu.

The economist Amartya Sen made a related point in regretting the neglect by the votaries of Hindutva of the great achievements of Hindu civilisation in favour of its more dubious features. As Sen wrote about Hindu militants:

‘Not for them the sophistication of the Upanishads or Gita, or of Brahmagupta or Sankara, or of Kalidasa or Sudraka; they prefer the adoration of Rama’s idol and Hanuman’s image. Their nationalism also ignores the rationalist traditions of India, a country in which some of the earliest steps in algebra, geometry, and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where early philosophy—secular as well as religious—achieved exceptional sophistication, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education, and began the first systematic study of political economy. The Hindu militant chooses instead to present India—explicitly or implicitly—as a country of unquestioning idolaters, delirious fanatics, belligerent devotees, and religious murderers.’

To discriminate against another, to attack another, to kill another, to destroy another’s place of worship, is not part of the Hindu dharma so magnificently preached by Vivekananda, nor the Hinduism propagated in twentieth-century India by Mahatma Gandhi, whose advocacy of ahimsa and satyagraha brought Hindu values into the national movement, while accommodating all other faiths.

Congress rejects the presumption that the purveyors of hatred speak for all or even most Hindus. The Hindutva ideology is in fact a malign distortion of Hinduism. Many leaders in the Congress Party are comfortable in their Hindu beliefs while rejecting the political construct of Hindutva.

It suits the purveyors of Hindutva to imply that the choice is between their belligerent interpretation of Hinduism and the godless Westernisation of the ‘pseudo-seculars’. Congressmen like Rahl Gandhi and myself believe that you can wear your Hinduism on your sleeve and still be a political liberal.

But that choice is elided by the BJP/RSS identification of Hindutva with political Hinduism, as if such a conflation is the only possible approach open to practising Hindus.

We reject that idea. I not only consider myself both a Hindu and a liberal, but find that liberalism is the political ideology that most corresponds to the wide-ranging and open-minded nature of my understanding of the Hindu faith.

When Rahul Gandhi takes on the RSS, he does so both from the platform of the Constitution and as a Hindu who cherishes the principles of non-violence, acceptance and inclusion he has learned from his faith. Those who have advocated hatred for, and conducted violence against, Muslims and other minorities betray both Hinduism and the Constitution.

Hinduism does not see the world in terms of absolutes. Blacks and whites are largely absent from its ethos. Our Hinduism sees competing notions of good and evil, duty and betrayal, everywhere, and seeks wisdom in finding the right approach suited for each specific circumstance.

Hinduism is not a totalising belief system; it offers a way of coping with the complexity of the world. It acknowledges that the truth is plural, that there is no one correct answer to the big questions of creation, or of the meaning of life.

In its reverence for sages and rishis, it admits that knowledge may come from an exchange between two or more views, neither of which necessarily possesses a monopoly on the truth.

The greatest truth, to the Hindu, is that which accepts the existence of other truths. That, to Congressmen like myself, is the best formula for social harmony in a multi-religious democracy. We are proud to fight for it.

(Former UN Under-Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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